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Optimum Talks Blog

Shake It: The Art of a Great Handshake

by Optimum Talent
November 16, 2016

It is said that the practice of shaking hands originated in ancient times to show that you wished for a peaceful interaction and held no weapons in your hands.  Whatever the basis, the handshake has become one of few acceptable forms of physical contact between strangers, and leaves a lasting impression.

As someone who shakes a lot of hands in the course of a day, it is astonishing to me how unaware people are regarding how their handshake impacts first impression.  It is also astonishing how many people shake hands poorly.  And it’s not just me.  I recently conducted a non-scientific poll amongst my colleagues asking them to share their most surprising handshake experiences. The results may not surprise you – you have likely experienced them yourself – but the frequency with which we witness them should:

  • The Bionic Handshake – this is the handshake that leaves you filled with pain, regret and a lingering sense that maybe you inadvertently entered a strength contest.  It is a bone-crushing squeeze of a handshake.  Whatever you do, don’t squeeze back because the intensity only increases.  Consensus is that this is a very weak power move.
  • The Limp Fish Handshake – the opposite of the bionic handshake.  You know it well: if you closed your eyes, you would swear that the person on the end of the arm is unconscious or sleeping.  While I suspect it is done out of respect, or out of an abundance of caution to avoid crushing my hand, the positive intention is no less off-putting.
  • The Wet Handshake – the reasons for the palm moisture could be manifold, but your mind immediately goes somewhere dark and unhygienic.  Sweat?  A recent sneeze?  Worse?  The good news is that generally you are aware when you have wet palms so you can rectify the situation before the handshake.
  • The Water Pump – despite significant exertion, the ferocity of the arm pump will not result in water.  Although my colleagues did comment on the style, it seemed to elicit fewer negative feelings than some of the other handshakes mentioned; some even appreciated it for its sincerity and enthusiasm.
  • The Finger Tip Pinch – this is a new experience for me.  Recently, a meeting began with someone grasping just the tips of my fingers in a handshake – I thought they might wish to kiss my hand when I wished to shake theirs.  I asked my colleagues if this was a unique phenomenon for women, but my male colleagues tell me they experience it as well.
  • Avert Your Eyes – perhaps the most disconcerting handshake is when the person you are greeting avoids eye contact.  Why can’t you look at me?  Is there something on my face?

So, what makes a good shake?

Your parents probably told you that a firm handshake was a powerful tool and neuroscience confirms they were correct.  A paper published in the December, 2012 issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience concludes that, “a handshake preceding social interactions positively influenced the way individuals evaluated the social interaction partners and their interest in further interactions, while reversing the impact of negative impressions.”  Powerful stuff!

Further research (Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 93(5), Sep 2008) states that an applicant’s handshake impacts hiring recommendations formed during employment interviews, and that the relationship between a firm handshake and interview ratings may be stronger for women than for men.

Because the handshake has such an immediate impact on how people view you, it is important that you understand both how you shake hands, and how your handshake is perceived.  Practice.  Select a practice partner whose handshake you admire, and who is not afraid of hurting your feelings with negative feedback.  Once you have a handshake that is deemed friendly, open and firm (but not too firm), try it out with a few more friends to make sure the feedback is consistent.

And once you are done practicing, shake hands with confidence!  Unless you prescribe to this study.


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